Homily: “Offer it up”

Finding Meaning in Suffering - For Your Marriage

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (see readings)
Jeremiah 20:7-9
Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

In our readings for this weekend, we see Peter initially reject Jesus’ revelation that the divine plan is for Jesus to suffer and be killed and raised again. Jesus then uses Peter’s rebuke as an opportunity to teach discipleship, which is our share in the mystery of Jesus’ cross: not only will He suffer, but to be His true disciple, we must also deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. As St. Paul says in our second reading, our role is not to conform ourselves to the ways of this world, but to offer ourselves as a sacrifice, an oblation, to unite our cross to the self-offering of Jesus. We get a hint of that in the Mass, when we lift up our hearts, we lift them up to the Lord, for it is right and just. We unite our offering of ourselves and our prayers to the sacrifice on the altar, and the priest invites us to pray that God might accept his sacrifice and ours. The Mass isn’t a spectator sport, or a theater show: we’re not an audience, we’ve got work to do! We “offer it up”—we participate in Christ’s redemptive suffering. We can even offer up our suffering through annoying guidelines and rules we have to follow that we might not agree with.

We’ve often heard these terms used: “offering it up”… “redemptive suffering.” So I thought since the readings suggest this theme, we might explore more about what that means. I thought it would work best if I try to illustrate it through a story.

The main character of our story is Rodney. Rodney is a basically good person, who, in our story, gets sick, and needs a kidney donor. So Rodney’s friends decide they’re going to begin a campaign of sacrificial offering, or redemptive suffering, for Rodney in his illness. Every time they endure any suffering, they “offer it up” for Rodney. So how does this work?

So, a few things we need to establish right out of the gate. First: nothing that Rodney’s friends do can earn the forgiveness of Rodney’s sins. Only the grace of the cross and resurrection of Jesus can forgive sins. Second: God loves Rodney more than Rodney’s friends do. So, Rodney’s friends aren’t going to convince God to decide to be nice to Rodney. God is already generously providing for Rodney’s salvation. Third: God knew, from the beginning of time, what Rodney’s friends were going to do on Rodney’s behalf. Rodney’s friends will make their choices by their own free will, but God, who is outside of time, knows what they will do, and includes their choices (all of our choices) in his divine plan. And Fourth: Sin has both eternal and temporal consequences. While only God’s grace can forgive Rodney’s sins and save him from hell (which is the eternal consequence of sin), there are a lot of temporal consequences of sin: attachment to sin, bad habits, wounded relationships; and some of those things can have their own indirect consequences—disease, regret, despair, anger, unforgiveness, etc.

So, Rodney’s friends start offering sacrifices and sufferings for the special intention of Rodney’s healing. Every red light they have to wait through, every stubbed toe, every sleepless night, every ache and pain, every rosary prayed, is offered up for the intention of Rodney’s healing and recovery. I hope we all have friends like that! But what are they accomplishing?

First, let’s look at what Jesus accomplished. As the union of humanity and divinity, Jesus, in the Paschal mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection, earned for humanity infinitely more grace than humanity could ever possibly need. Jesus didn’t end suffering, as you may have noticed. Instead, he gave suffering meaningfulness and usefulness. He gave it hope, when experienced in love and faith. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus, each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris).

Saint Paul said, in his letter to the Colossians, “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24). The sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross was perfect and infinitely sufficient. But by grace, there’s more to Jesus’ body than what was nailed to the cross, resurrected, and ascended. We, also, are parts of the body of Christ. So as the physical body of Christ endured suffering for the healing of the world, so we as the mystical body of Christ also unite ourselves and our sufferings to him and his suffering on the cross… which not only accomplishes for ourselves a greater unity of ourselves with Jesus, but also makes us part of God’s healing of the world. In one sense, that was accomplished in the past, on Calvary. But in another sense, it continues to unfold until the end of time, through the mystery of Christ’s mystical body, the Church.

God loves his work, and he always invites us to help him in his work, like a Father who invites his children to help him in the garage. The children are sometimes more of an obstacle than a help, but he loves them, loves spending time with them, loves seeing their joy they experience in getting to help with whatever project the Father is doing. He invites us to help in his divine act of Creation (in our work, and in our procreation of children); and he invites us to help in his divine act of Re-creation, in joining our suffering to his, in our loving compassion and service to others. He doesn’t have to work through us. But he has chosen to include us as instruments in His work, in his love for us. He formed us in body and spirit after his image, but it’s in the time we spend with him, and learn from him, and follow his example, that we are conformed to his likeness.

So now that we’ve said all that, we can say a lot more about what Rodney’s friends might accomplish. First, God might really have spared Rodney’s earthly life because of the prayers he knew his friends would freely offer for him. Prayers truly are effective and important. God himself tells us to pray, and how to pray, and that it’s important. We don’t know what our prayers accomplish, but we know by faith that they do work. And perhaps in heaven we will see all the good that was the fruit of our prayers.

In all their prayers for Rodney, his friends spent all those times thinking about him, and not about themselves. They grew in selflessness because of their love. Like Simon of Cyrene, they helped Rodney carry his cross, and in turn, they were blessed for their generosity. Their sufferings became moments of grace. They didn’t see the red lights or achy joints or sleepless nights just as pointless burdens, but as opportunities to put to good use, to fill these parts of their lives with meaningfulness. With all the rosaries they said for Rodney, they grew in their love of the Blessed Mother, and of the mysteries of the Life of Christ.

Their concern for Rodney made its way into their conversations with friends, family, and co-workers. One of these co-workers, going through his own experiences in God’s plan, heard Rodney’s story, got himself tested, was a match for Rodney, and offered to donate his kidney. This of course lifted Rodney from his growing despair, and filled him and his friends with gratitude and hope. The medical staff saw his growing joyfulness, and enjoyed spending more time with him and his needs, and it brightened up their day, especially one who was about to give up on her nursing career because she felt it was all too negative and emotionally draining.

Especially aware of the sacrifices of his friends, Rodney started reading the scriptures more, and growing in faith. He became more open to receive God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in his life.

The young man who was donating his kidney reminded Rodney of his son-in-law, the husband of his estranged daughter, and he decided to call her, and they reconciled.

Before his surgery, he made a powerful confession of his sins to a priest, for the first time in years, and received the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist.

In the midst of Rodney’s surgery, the surgeon happened “by chance” to notice a different medical problem that had up then been undetected, and an expert in that field “by chance” was visiting the hospital for another patient, and came in to successfully correct Rodney’s issue. In the weeks of recovery, the doctor said Rodney’s body was healing surprisingly, miraculously, well. He was following the instructions and looking forward to the future.

Having been so moved by all that had happened, Rodney was opened to discerning his vocation as a permanent deacon. In the rest of his fruitful and happy life, his ministry affected and inspired countless numbers of the faithful, particularly in his visits to the hospital, and his own story, and his frequent reminders about offering up suffering for others. Because of the faith of his friends, and the sufferings they offered up for his sake, his sins were forgiven, and he was healed, and made new. And God’s plan of love unfolded superabundantly.

The beautiful Catholic tradition of the morning offering is an expression of what we’ve been talking about. You can find more about the morning offering by clicking here. I might recommend memorizing one of the prayers, or putting it some place you’ll see everyday, like next to the bathroom mirror, or the coffee maker, and make it a part of your morning routine!

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Homily: Sicut erat in principio


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
Psalm 85:9-14
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:22-33

I’ve wanted to talk about the things going on in our society, to help us to digest everything and, ultimately, to frame everything in the context of our primary lens, which is our faith. Every weekend, I do my homily research, and then I look up to the image on the wall in front of me of Christ on the cross, and say, “Ok, tell me what you want to say to your people,” and then I go take the dog for a walk and contemplate. And every week, what comes to me has been about teaching the truth in the readings, such as last week’s focus on the mystery of the Eucharist, and the week before that on being patient, relying on our trust in God that he knows there’s weeds in with the wheat, and he’ll sort it all out in his time. So finally, this week, he said, “This is the week. These are the readings. This is the right framework. Now let’s talk about it.” I’m probably not going to give you all that you want to hear. God doesn’t usually work that way, as you may have noticed.

I’ve never been good at keeping up with the news, and so the news articles shared through social media have been a great help to me. But it’s both a blessing and a curse to have friends across the entire political and social spectrum. I see the news articles that my friends share, because they find them informative and helpful, as the right way to understand the events unfolding, and where events are likely to lead. And they are all over the map.

The difference between right and left news sources isn’t just about the interpretations, they report different realities. And without fail, when I actually take the time to go behind the reporting of an event, I find that both sides have cherry-picked the facts that support the “truth” that they want to report. And so, if you’re following only one side, then there’s a strong temptation (based on what you have read) to uncharitably judge people on the other side as evil, or stupid, or both. The divisive bias of reporting on the issues is its own part of the issues. And the disparity in the reporting has led to irreconcilable differences in believing what our society was, is, and should be, and how we should respond to that. And that’s aside from the more important irreconcilable difference, between those who follow Christ, those who oppose Christ… and then, there are those who think they can do the former in their heart and the latter in their actions.

Once in a great while, I’m tempted to jump in (for one side or the other) and add my two cents. And every time, I get busted down. Both sides have their rhetoric, their facts, and their memes to shut down any opposing posts. And every time I get busted down, I get an unmistakable message that it wasn’t just my friend calling me out, but Jesus reminding me, “I told you not to get into it. You’re not to get down into fighting for one side or the other. You’re to transcend above it, to minister to the people on both sides, and bring the attention of those on both sides to what transcends the sides, which is the shared human reality of needing love, needing hope, and meaning, and encouragement, and joy; and you’re to pull people toward me, toward personal holiness.”

So my focus, my response, to all that is going on, is that we’ve lost our focus. Our eyes are focusing on the storm, and not on Christ, and that’s when we get that sinking, drowning feeling of fear. That’s Peter in the Gospel. Whenever and wherever in our life that we get all panicked, we need to reach up, for Jesus to embrace us, and pull us up out of our sinking, and out of our panic, and we return our gaze to him. And at least in our hearts, he calms the storm. He says to us, “Oh my dear little one, why did you doubt?” And we respond, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when I do that, he grounds me back on the steady rock that is himself, and my storm is calmed.

Jesus was constantly being tempted to take sides. Most particularly, perhaps, you may recall a question that was posed to Jesus regarding whether to agree to pay the Roman tax or not. Jesus, with divine insight, transcended the question of sides, and brought the focus of the people of God back to God, “and all were amazed at him.” 

Yes, we unequivocally reject and oppose racism, and all unjust prejudice, and any abuse of trust and authority by police, or clergy; we oppose the willful taking of innocent human life, the willful destruction of public property or the private property of another, for example, the destruction of stores, or homes, or churches, cemeteries, and images of saints. Yes, we also reject laws that infringe upon the inalienable right to liveprivately, and professionally, and in managing our businessesaccording to the truth of human nature as revealed by our faith, and not be forced to choose between acting against our conscience, or sacrificing our professional position or career.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Church and her children have her rights offended. The Church and the world have always been in conflict. But up until recently, we have been used to Western society coming from Christian Europe, and its foundation in “Christendom,” with the Church having a privileged position and respected voice of authority in society. But that’s no longer the case. Christianity is essentially being slowly pushed back into the catacombs, as it was when it flourished in its beginning.

In 1969, in the tension of all that was going on in the world at the time, Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, gave an interview in which made a prophetic prediction. He said, “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges… As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members… The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church… It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek… But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church… And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times… But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” 1969 (51 yrs ago) he said that.

So in our society, and in our life, the Church won’t be the strong imposing establishment that it once was. Older Catholics already lament the loss of the “parish culture” they remember from their youth, providing a scaffolding of support to bolster faith and morality, providing a social context that helped some more timid souls get to heaven, by protecting them from spiritual danger. The dominant flow now goes in a different direction, and souls that are not strong enoughor not taught well enoughto resist the current, are in greater peril. It will be harder to be Christian, which will bring more difficulty and suffering, and more falling away.

But what was elucidated for me in all this was that this is how Christianity started: with a network of Christian communities, with emissaries like Paul and Barnabas connecting them together with common texts and practices; sharing stories of troubles and successes; exchanging resources; building each other up; ministering to those searching for more (meaningfulness) than what society seems to offer; ministering to those imprisoned, lonely, depressed, and sick, and of course coming together to pray, worship, and grow in love for God and each other. Certainly, the early Christians gave to the Church for its expenses and needs, but this was not a substitute for personal ministry, but a deeper personal investment in what it means to live the Christian life.

The description of a church like this may seem to us to be uncomfortably new, a shadow of the church’s former glory. But for the Church, it will be familiar: a new springtime, as Pope Saint John Paul II called it (though perhaps not in the way he envisioned it). A renewed and deeper conversion of the members of the mystical body of Christ. I’ll close with this quote, originally attributed to St. Barnabas, which was part of last Sunday’s Liturgy of the Hours: “When evil days are upon us and the worker of malice gains power, we must attend to our own souls and seek to know the ways of the Lord. In those times, reverential fear and perseverance will sustain our faith, and we will find need of forbearance and self-restraint as well. Provided that we hold fast to these virtues and look to the Lord, then wisdom, understanding, knowledge and insight will make joyous company with them.

We will have our rights violated, and our faith mocked. That’s already happening. We should not be surprised if the secular courts favor the secular world. But we will keep pushing for justice, for the rights of human dignity, for ourselves and for the needy and vulnerable.

But I think we should individually hold on to and keep coming back to today’s readings. I think these readings for today are a constant reminder for our consolation and humble confidence; our reminder of God’s calming presence in the stormy world we’re passing through. Jesus, God, is calling us out of our comfortable safety, for us to push aside the distractions, the fear, and the storm; to faithfully, obediently, and humbly walk toward him, neither to the right, nor to the left; to trust the calm whispering voice that says in the quiet depths of our heart, “Take courage. Do not be afraid. Come. Follow me.”


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